The barbell back squat is arguably the most effective movement for building a strong, muscular set of legs. But with great reward comes great risk, and back squats are not always an option if someone is unable to perform them properly and safely. Here are 4 “bulletproof” non-squat exercises that will help you build your legs!
Squatting is the king of lower body exercises. Unfortunately though, for people with preexisting injuries to the lower body, squatting is definitely not something that will be conducive to health, longevity, and building muscle. Moreover, if someone isn’t flexible/mobile enough to achieve proper depth while doing back squats, then the effectiveness of the movement decreases drastically.
Naturally then, many gym goers are curious what the best movements are to build an appreciable set of wheels without the need for back squats. Let’s take a look at the best back squat alternatives for leg development and how to execute them properly.
LEG PRESS MACHINE
The leg press is probably the most vilified lower body exercise by health and fitness enthusiasts, largely because it’s performed as an “ego lift” by many gym goers (who usually lack any sort of decent leg development). Even a scrawny kid can load up 500lbs on the leg press and perform a few poorly executed, partial range of motion reps (but that surely won’t do much for muscle growth). Squats are undoubtedly a more effective movement than leg presses in terms of demanding more from your lower body, but the latter is not without merit when executed properly. As alluded to earlier, the risk fits the reward, and often times squatting just isn’t in the cards for people who are susceptible to injury or lack flexibility/mobility. In those instances, leg presses are a great way to simulate the squatting movement with much less chance of injury.
1. Sit/lay on leg press machine so your back is flat against the padding. Place feet near the top of the platform with shoulder width (narrower width makes it more challenging on the quadriceps).
2. Push the platform away from your body by extending knees until your legs are straight.
3. Lower the platform (bring it toward your torso) by flexing the knees. Repeat as necessary by performing step 2 again.
Note: Make sure NOT to let your lower back come off the padding at the bottom by going too deep; this drastically reduces the efficacy and safety off the movement.
This alteration of conventional dead-lifts, which can performed with either dumbbells or a barbell, is one of the most effective ways to target your hamstrings and glutes (and the lower back to an extent). The best part about stiff-legged dead-lifts is they force the hamstring to do large amounts of work on both the eccentric and concentric phases of the movement. You can also increase the range of motion on this movement by using an elevated platform.
Leg curls, and most hamstring machines, are really rather concentric-dominant and lack a thorough eccentric contraction. It’s not uncommon for people who rely heavily on leg curls to be rather weak when it comes to their posterior chain.
1. Stand with a shoulder width or narrower stance so your feet are bisected by the barbell when you look down. If using dumbbells, place one parallel to each foot at the side.
2. Bend down at your waist, keeping your legs perpendicular to the floor and grasp the barbell (or dumbbells) with a grip slightly outside your shoulders (use either double overhand grip or mixed grip).
3. With knees slightly bent, lift the weight by extending at hips until standing upright (make sure not to hyperextend your back at the top).
4. From upright position, lower weight to top of feet by bending hips (not your knees). Keep your knees ever-so-slightly bent while lowering the weight keep your torso as flat as possible by retracting your shoulder blades.
5. Lift weight by extending the hips and standing upright. Repeat as necessary by performing step 7 again.
Note: Most people tend to reduce the potential muscle-building capacity of this movement by cheating and using improper form, such as rounding their back and keeping their knees locked to tight. Make sure to avoid these common mistakes.
The good morning is essentially a stiff-legged dead-lift with the barbell across your upper back instead of in your hands. You’ll notice this movement is very effective for building your hamstrings and glutes.
It’s not uncommon for this movement to be highly challenging when first starting out; err on the side of using a weight that is lighter and focusing on form. If you find that bar “digs” into your upper back and is too painful, use a pad or towel wrapped around the bar.
1. Position barbell on back of shoulders (across upper shoulder blades) and grasp bar with grip just outside shoulder width.
2. Keeping torso flat/straight, bend at the hips and lower torso forward until parallel to floor (keep knees slightly bent while lowering torso)
3. Raise torso back to upright position by extending at the hips. Repeat as necessary.
Lunges are extremely versatile and user-friendly, which would explain why many newcomers to the gym include them in their leg workouts. The great thing about lunges is they aren’t a technical movement and they are fun to perform. They can be performed with a barbell across the upper back or dumbbells held in each hand.
Lunges are significantly less strenuous on the knees than squats may be for many people. If you notice that lunges aggravate your knees, try leaning your torso forward more as opposed to keeping upright. Many people will find this alleviates any knee pains associated with this movement.
1. Position barbell on upper back (across top of shoulder blades) and grasp bar with grip just outside the shoulders. If using dumbbells, simply hold one in each hand at your sides.
2. Lunge forward with first leg in a normal length stride (don’t go too far as this will throw your balance off). Land on heel, then forefoot.
3. Lower your hips by flexing your forward knee until the knee of your opposite (rear) leg nearly touches the floor.
4. Complete the lunge by standing on leading leg with assistance of rear leg.
5. Bring rear leg forward so you’re fully erect and back to starting position. Repeat by alternating lunge with opposite leg.
While no exercise can ever really replace barbell squats, these alternatives will certainly help pack mass on your legs, safely. Always make sure to do these exercises with proper form and don’t let your ego get ahead of you. Lifting a lot of weight can be exhilarating, but when done improperly it leads to injury and limited muscle growth.